Please Pack Your Machete and Go

Hector Santiago, chef and owner Pura Vida restaurant, Atlanta

Judgment of Food Show Continues to Provide Sociology Lessons

by Lauren Pabst

“It looks like he cut this with an ax!”

– An astonished Gail Simmons of Food & Wine Magazine on Hector Santiago’s steak on Top Chef Las Vegas last week. He and partner Ash Fulk ran out of time on the cooking of a chateau briand and had to cut 24 pieces of meat in 2 minutes.

Episode Four of Top Chef Las Vegas was very French. It even ended up being perpetually red neckerchiefed San Francisco-based restaurant owner and contestant Mattin’s birthday. The Quickfire asked the chefs to make an accessible, innovative dish of escargots (snails) and Jesse Sandlin, who created a ELT (escargots, fresh greens and fried tomato) ultimately lost and was sent home. (kicked off the island of asphalt, palm trees and neon in the middle of the desert)

You could tell Jesse was nervous about it. Head Judge Tom Colliccio asked her “What was the inspiration for this?”

“I don’t know” she said. (What about a BLT? Why not.)

“I haven’t felt like myself since I got here” said Jesse in the obligatory exit interview. “I just want people to know that I don’t suck this bad.”

The contestants moved on to the big challenge. They each drew knives listing a “classic French” sauce and cut of meat. The meat-drawers had to pair with the sauce makers to whip up an innovative take on Classic French Cooking, to be judged by super big name chefs in the world of French Cooking – superstars like a guy named Joel Robouchon.

[So, if Top Chef comes from a default setting of low-expectations from Mexican food, they LOVE Classic French Cooking. Chef, sautee, entrée, cuisine, restaurant, sauce, café, bistro, latte, mise-en-place, chiffonade, brunoir – there already exists lots of French validation to cooking. What separates a cook from a chef? I haven’t eaten much French food (do French fries count? That’s a serious question) but it does seem good and complicated (they can fold thin dough every which way and butter it up… oh, the crossaint, crossandwich). But so is –  say, Thai food delicious and complicated to the untrained. And Greek food, Chinese food (definitely!), Indian food, Mexican food, Nigerian food, and more. Is it because the wife of a State Department worker, Julia Child, got around to Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a hobby that marvelously revolutionized American taste buds and eating habits, as the recent movie Julie and Julia suggests, when she “went native” in postwar Paris? Haven’t seen it, but heard that the Julie of the book, the blogger who cooked every recipe in Julia Child’s giant French cookbook in a year was working at the same time as a counselor for people affected by the attacks of 9/11 in New York. French cooking as escaping/coping with (fill in the blank)? The ultimate compliment, maybe.]

Jennifer C. was paired with Mike V., brother to Bryan V. (who won the episode with a “deconstructed bernaise”). Jennifer C. and Mike V. displayed a palpable cooking chemistry in the kitchen.

“How was it cooking together?” asked a judge, after praising their dish. Jennifer professed seriously a highly compatible kinetic energy while preparing rabbit and sauce together. Mike affirmed.

Besides Jennifer and Mike’s bunnies, other teams cooked lobster, frogs legs, trout and young chicken – all fairly dainty cuts of meat with similar cooking times (it seems to this non-chef, merely sometime cook).

For the same amount of time, a big hunk of meat (chateau briand) was assigned by knife-pulling – an Arthurian-like practice (Camelot = $250,000 cash and products furnished by the makers of Kitchen-Aid) to Hector and Ash.

“So a gay guy and a Puerto Rican have to cook dinner for Joel Robouchon, right?” joked Ash as they got started.

Hector shimmied his knife along the fat on long cuts of chateau briand. “I used to work in a banquet hall. This is all people want, filet mignon.

The oven didn’t get as hot as Hector was expecting it to for the way he wanted to cook the beef. [One French chef judge would later frustratedly list how little time it took to roast a proper chateu briand]. They ran out of time cooking the meat.

“Eight seconds? That’s going to happen quickly” said Ash, saucing the plates in a rush.

Hurried cutting of the undercooked, bloody meat led it to absorb Ash’s sauce and to upset the delicate but boisterous Gail Simmons of Food and Wine Magazine.

“It looks like he cut it with an ax!” she exclaimed of the steak, riled up, mascaraed eyes wide.

Receiving an unevenly cooked end piece, Gail did her best neo-Mae West, almost neck-popping, in asserting that in giving her the end, they had “picked the wrong lady.”

“I am Haitian and Haitians and the French, we don’t like them and they don’t like us” said Classically trained French chef Ron Duprat. His dish went by in the middle – neither the best nor the worst, thus avoiding more than the just the most cursory critique. [It seems possible that the French don’t feel any particular way towards Haitians now… but the nation’s time spent with their feet on the island leaves a rough footprint, to say the least.]

Hector was told to pack his knives (and axes, if any, we can assume) and go on account of the undercooked meat. A chef and restaurant owner in Atlanta, he had said in an earlier interview that he started as a dishwasher and worked his way up.

“I wish I could have represented my people longer” Hector said before exiting the studio as he had been asked to do, politely.

In his “morning after” interview, available on, Hector states his frustration with the experience.  That the judges were so judgmental of his traditional Latin American cooking style – when he fried a steak chicharron style – was particularly surprising to Santiago.

“In Latinoamerica, we fry everything… That they couldn’t understand that was really shocking to me.  They think that their way is the only way” Santiago said.  In the interview, he went on to state that getting kicked off on the fourth challenge would not allow him to accomplish his goal of raising the profile of his restaurant but would “actually diminish” his career.

Food for thought. Although I do not know what percentage of restaurant staff in the U.S. is Latino, it is certainly a high one. Latinos cook all kinds of food – from classical French cuisine to Japanese fare and pizza. It is interesting that Top Chef does not recognize as a valid style techniques common to Latino kitchens – the ones at home, or in Latin American restaurants. What is better-received on the show is cooking things sous vide (a style I had never heard of before tuning in to TC) – in a plastic vacuum-sealed sack, seemingly, in boiling water.  Many “cheftestants” get praised for this preparation.

Just another little interesting snapshot of real people, trapped in the pressure cooker of reality TV – and the steamy insight that drifts out.

Next Episode: The chefs visit a Wild West-like “settlement” set in the desert and circle the wagons, appearing to cook with big pots and pans.

Please Pack Your Knives and Go

Jennifer Zavala, Philadelphia chef

by Lauren Pabst

“In America, deep frying steak is not a good idea”

– European emigrant Wolfgang Puck to (U.S. Commonwealth of) Puerto Rico native and Top Chef contestant Hector Santiago. Though placed in the bottom four, Hector escaped the first Top Chef elimination on the August 20th season premiere.

An argument can be made that Top Chef is the most decadent TV show ever. It pretty much has it all: elitism, sexy women eating food, competition, money, gluttony, excess, shopping, criticism, rejection. And food; oh, food: plates and plates of food for each challenge, course after course for the taste buds of the judges. Quickfire challenges with arrays of burgers and fries purely as a visual (maybe someone ate them, but who? The crew? The shoppers of the Top Chef Kitchen’s garbage cans?). Tens of thousands of dollars shelled out at various posh Whole Foods branches over five seasons (“I can’t find half my stuff!” Haitian chef Ron Duprat moaned good-naturedly, after asking a Whole Foods employee if they had an “island station”). Lots and lots of food, all of it usually looking good, some definitely going uneaten (“It was so good I finished it all!” has been an occasional judge comment in the past).

But at least every episode, a chicken wing or a salad or a tart displeases the panel of professional food eaters. Someone is dissed and dismissed. Somebody is rejected; sacrificed to the gods of reality television. Voted off the island. Fired. Cut. Sent home. Told to pack their knives and go.

Ultra dramatically, the pronouncement is accompanied by -”jing!” – the sound of a sharp blade slicing (the air?). Often the chucked chef will hang their head at the precise moment of this sound effect, giving us the quick impression of a parody of a beheading. This is what happens when you let them eat (apparently) sub-par cake.

A friend recently asked me the difference between documentary and reality TV. The question was interesting to ponder. Reality TV is utterly constructed, proudly fake. But “documentary film” can have elements of the constructed or forced; the mere presence of cameras has an impact on the action, often times.

But if a documentary is the filmmakers bearing witness to the subjects in a situation, “Reality TV” is the producers leading the subjects by the hand through a series of hoops – through competitions creative or personal. The personal competitions (The Bachelor / Bachlorette, Flavor of Love, The Biggest Loser) are squeamish to watch. The creative ones (Project Runway, Top Chef) also contain an element of discomfort, but are much more interesting. Because the contestants are there for a skill or craft, their personalities come out – perhaps – a bit realer.

Judgment of something so universal and cultural as food is curious. After all, isn’t food a matter of (hm) taste, which is determined by so many things – history, personality, habits, culture? Such harsh judgment of such carefully prepared, abundant food would probably be anachronistic and baffling to much of the planet. This show is no place for the philosophy that, to paraphrase Chris Rock from his book Rock This! (1998), anybody in this world lucky enough to have a steak in front of them (deep-fried chicharrón style or no) should probably just bite the s*** out of it.

But then without judgment, we wouldn’t have a contest or a show, would we.

On the premiere episode, which aired on Thursday, August 2oth, someone was cut (told to get out of there and take those sharp blades she brought with her, with her). She was Jennifer Zavala, executive chef at Philadelphia’s El Camino Real, mother of a three year-old boy. She had earlobes gauged out to the size of nameplate hoops and tattoos that read: “Sacred” on her throat and “Scarred” on her chest – (a weird but fascinating slide show on chronicles the illustrated arms and torsos of the chefs) who boldly stated that she felt she had to win to finance an education for her son.

“I want to win everything, no matter what” said fellow Philly-based chef Jennifer Carroll, another contestant, former sous-chef to celebrity chef Eric Ripert of New York City’s Le Bernadin and now chef de cuisine at his restaurant 10 Arts. Jen C. did win the Quickfire challenge with a clam ceviche (which she rhymed with beach). Carroll’s win in this Las Vegas themed show also came with a $15,000 chip courtesy of the hosting casino.

She won the two-tiered Quickfire, where only four people got to compete after winning in a butchering relay race of “some of the most popular foods in Las Vegas,” according to Tom Colliccio, which were – interestingly – shrimp, lobster, clams and meat, many of which, say, the Paiute probably didn’t have as part of their diet.

Some chefs were shy and nervous, some were boisterious and selfish and thought they were hilarious, some were frantically cocky, some were overeager to please. All this personality was tweaked by the producers who had them (inspired again by the reputably debauched desert city locale) create a dish based on a sin they were personally guilty of [sic]. Quite a few chefs dished up plates of food based on their drinking habits, some on their unhealthy food penchants, smoking,  procrastination, and one on not being able to let go of twenty-seven days spent at sea on a boat from Haiti to Florida.

“I’m not sure how that’s a sin” said Tom Colliccio about the inspiration of that last one, Miami-based Haitian chef Ron Duprat’s Chilean sea bass sitting on top of a squat, colorful stack of chunky sauces and cooked veggies at Judge’s Table, though he didn’t question anybody elses’ interpretations of the nebulous and probably mis-translatable concept of “sin.”

Hector Santiago, from Puerto Rico and a chef/owner of a restaurant in Atlanta smoked, then deep-fried a steak: “Steak and potatoes, Latino way!” he shouted in the kitchen, presenting it on a plate sliced on the bias next to a fresh jaunty pile of light sprouty looking greens.

“It’s a little bizzare… I don’t get it!” New York restauranteur Tom Colliccio sputtered to the rest of the unanimously distainful panel about Hector’s steak, like one who had never lunched above 96th Street.

“What would you do if a chef in your restaurant put a steak in the deep fryer?” Colliccio fed to guest judge Wolfgang Puck.

“I’d throw HIM in the fire!” fired back Puck triumphantly as host Padma Lakshmi and judge Gail Simmons of Food and Wine magazine giggled in low cut dresses with mock exasperation.

Along with Hector, three chefs landed in the bottom four in a weird electoral college-like system that plucked a loser from every relay race group.

Some dishes were called overcooked by the judges. The chefs guiltily copped: Jesse Sandlin sweated over a dry chicken breast and Michigan chef Eve Aronoff was as flustered as her shrimp were flushed. (or something… hard to write about food you only see)

Jennifer Zavala served up a seitan-stuffed poblano chile with grilled tomatillo salsa based on a hot temper. “Anger can also be really good for you” she said. The big shiny dark green chile was crispy and fried, with creamy sauce-coated chunks of the wheat gluten meat-substitute protien nestled inside.

Tom Colliccio raked his fork through the insides of the chile and looked offended. At that moment, had this week’s loser already been selected?

“I love a good chile relleno… This is not a good chile relleno.” Colliccio said.

[The weird way Top Chef has treated Mexican food in the past doesn’t begin and probably won’t end with Colliccio’s defensive love for chiles relleno. When Rick Bayless was a contestant on Top Chef Masters, the judges and narration kept going on and on about how much Bayless had “done for” Mexican cuisine, as if the centuries of tradition and flavors hadn’t obviously done more for him. On that series’ final episode (a sociology lesson in itself), Bayless was asked to recreate the dish that made him want to be a chef: in his case, it was the Mexican chile/chocolate/nut/maybe a dozen more ingredients sauce known as mole (literally: sauce, in a Mayan language). The judges were so overwhelmed with the well-prepared traditional Mexican dish that the British food critic (who rather unnecessarily later raved that Bayless “took his mole virginity”) suggested that instead of talking about the dish, they just make “weird, guttural noises” to show their approval. Huh?]

“This dish was so clunky to me” complained Gail Simmons [of Food and Wine magazine, also a judge on the upcoming Top Wino] of Jen’s poblano.

“If you cooked that at home, those people would never come and visit you again” chortled Puck. “There’s really no flavor to it” – back to Tom.

Padma called it a midnight special from a vegan bar – not so clearly an insult if you’ve never even considered the idea of a vegan bar. And also maybe not if you have been to a vegan bar.

Jen Z. tasted defeat in Episode One. Or did she?

Next Episode:

“I love that you had the cojones to make that dish!”

Tom Colliccio to Hector Santiago on tofu ceviche